BLOG ARTICLE BY MIRIAM PERRY @ JOYFUL MUSE STUDIO
A short drive from home brought me to ldeal Plating in Providence, Rhode lsland, recommended to me by a vintage jewelry dealer. As with most manufacturing companies, there's no big, fancy sign outside.
lf I didn't know where I was going, the place would never have caught my eye. As it turned out, it caught my heart.
As instructed, I asked for Arnold A man with a bright smile in a dark blue work uniform came to greet me. "What can I do for you?" he asked. I told him that I had never had anything plated before so I might need more than just a few minutes of his time. No problem, he said. I pulled out my Ziploc bags filled with 3 lbs. of raw brass stampings, vintage unplated findings, and alreadf plated bezels. Arnold patiently sorted through each item. And as we did, I learned a lot about plating and just as much about the people behind it.
What is plating?
By definition, plating means, "a thin coating of metal" (Merriam Webster). There are two kinds of plating in Arnold's shop: barrel plating and rack plating. Barrel plating is used for items that won't stick together in a way that only one side will end up with plating. As the name implies, items-let's say raw brass charms, once they're cleaned-are placed inside the barrel, which is placed inside a tub of liquid and the coating metal-let's say gold-that's electrically charged so that the fine metal is fused to the items being plated. The barrel spins until, well, until Arnold says it's ready. lt's a manual process, which was the first surprise for me. From decades of experience, Arnold can tell if the plating meets his high standards for a beautiful and durable finish. He stops a barrel and pulls out a handful of gold-plated charms. They are a soft, lustrous, warm gold, and I have no trouble picturing earrings and charm bracelets. They look beautiful to my eye. But to Arnold's eye, they
are not quite ready. In they go for a little bit longer. In rack plating, items that would stick together in a barrel-such as chain and the moon charms above-- have to be strung up on racks to ensure an even plating. Someone has to string each item up. Someone else dips each rack into a tub of the proper solution where they are swished until the desired plating is completed. This labor-intensive process is why rack plating is more expensive than barrel plating. Either way, the plating process is all scientific-electrical charges, electrolytes, bonding, aqueous salt, etc.-but standing in Arnold's shop it really is like the magic of alchemy. Bubbling cauldrons of blue, green, and yellow liquid turn something raw into a finished product. Which is kind of what the plating business did to Arnold.
Learning the moves
Arnold's parents died when he was very young so, as a teen, he found himself looking for a job before he graduated from high school. He and two friends ended up at Regal Plating, once a huge player in the plating industry. The hiring manager asked Arnold's friends when they could start work. "Whenever you need us," they both replied. The manager turned to Arnold who said, without hesitation, "Right now."
He got the job. He learned every aspect of the business and process of plating and speaks fondly of his former manager at Regal, who was also his mentor. Arnold learned the ins and outs of the business, but of life, too. Now the boss of his own company, he still has his section of barrel plating tanks, working side by side with , who has been with him for 14 years. Arnold watches fill barrels, check them, rolls out the wet, plated pieces, and move them through the process. His movements are precise and his focus completely on the job. Arnold smiles. "He's got my moves. Itaught him everything I know and he has not just the knowledge but the drive to be the best. We keep each other sharp."
It's a people business first
Moving fast is important in this business. Customers want their product. Happy customers are loyal. So the faster products moves in and out, the betterthe bottom line. But Arnold has all the time in the world to find out what a new or 20-year customer wants.
"lt's my job to make people happy. They come to me with jobs a lot of companies won't take because they don't meet a minimum. But that's what I specialize in. Why wouldn't I take the small jobs? I want people to be able to get what they need so I don't like to say no."
When Arnold bought ldeal Plating in the late 90s, it became his family business. His wife and brother work there, but Arnold's family is an extended one. You can feel it as people throughout the shop smile and greet visitors. You can see it as they move around each other to navigate the many tanks, tables, racks, and shelves in an easy rhythm. And you can sense it as customers come into the shop, too. lt's clear that, to Arnold, this isn't business isn't just about putting a coating of metal on something. lt's about respect. lt's about courtesy. lt's about just being a decent human being. His stories are about the
positive interactions that made a difference in his life and others.
The plating process brings out the best of a piece. lt smooths the sharp edges. lt creates a warm glow. lt makes you smile because you know what it started out as and you can see what it is now and it's easy to imagine the potential of what it will become. Turns out, that's kind of the effect Arnold has on people, too.
A few things Arnold wants you to know:
He offers just about any finish you need: silver ox, gold ox, antique brass, antique silver, sterling silver, copper, matte black, and more.
lt's best to group items by the type of finish you want and whether they're going to be barrel plated or rack plated. The more you have, the lower the cost per piece. So a pound of items will cost less per piece than % lb.
There is no minimum; he'll try to help you out whatever your needs are. Rhinestones are not harmed by the plating process a(surprise to mel) so if you have unplated rhinestone chain, it can be rack plated.
lt's best to call with questions.
RE-FINISHING COSTUME JEWELRY: MORE THAN VANITY PLATING
When it came to leaming about the process of plating jewelry I was a liule intimidated. I had pictured an apple dipping into candy coatirig-- a quick and dirty transformation from raw parts to shiny confections. But I was wrong. Plating is actually pretry complicated.
The chemical tanks, the electrical charges-- all the science involved-- it all seemed an unfortunate flashback to high school chemistry class. So when taking the tour of a metal plating factory in Providence, Rhode Island, I was understandably wary. But seeing the whole process up close-- the electrical charging of metals, the submersion ofthese negatively-charged metals into positively-charged plating baths-- somehow there was a definite art lingering among the chemical processes, smells, and clattering machinery.
Plating can be defrired as adding a thin layer of metal to a metal object, usually to enhance or change its appearance, protect it, or to The process used in plating (or "electroplating") to this day was discovered by Italian chemist Luigi Brugnatelli in the early 1800's. Using his knowledge of chemical properties and the emerging science of electricity, he devised away to plate a silver medallion with gold-- that is, to deposit alayer of gold to the surface of a silver object. Unfortunately, the governments of Europe refused to publish his discovery at the time, as they disapproved of scientific advancementhat had not been commissioned by them.
It wasn't until the 1840's that a pair of scientists in England expanded on Brugnatelli's idea, and ran with it. They acquired the first patent on plating, and started the world's first commercial plating company. They made an alluring promise to their customers-- namely, that they would plate a less valuable metallic object (such as copper or brass) with a pized metal like gold or silver, to enhance its value, appearance, and sometimes durability. Early plated items that made a splash in Europe were things like cutlery and eyeglass frames. A few years later, they would begin to plate pieces ofjewelry, making pendants, earrings, brooches and chains affordable to the middle-class citizen for the first time.
The Plating Process
Since then, plating has continued to be a successful industry, and the same principles are still utilized. Works of beauty are created more efficiently these days, ip bulk in plating factories, but the same process of harnessing the forces of electricity and carefully calibrated chemical reactions is required. These days, the process of plating begins with a thorough cleaning of the objects to be plated. This removes any dirt, oils, rusts, or other residue from the surface of the piece, providing the
smoothest possible surface for plating. The pieces are then rinsed with an acid to act.ivate the surfaces before plating. Then, one of two methods is used:
Rack plating is the first option, and it is quite common when it comes to re-finishing costum jewelry. The cleansed items to be plated (called the "work") are draped or otherwise afftxed securely to a large metal rack. This allows items like watch chains or bracelets to be finished in bulk, with minimum tangling.
Racks are made of highly conductive metals, usually copper, which allows for an electric current to be transferred to the work itself. The charge comes from a device called a rectifier, which converts AC electricity (from an outlet) to a high-voltage direct current. The current is what will allow the polarity of the items to be manipulated.
The negatively charged uork is then immersed into a tank of electrolyte solution (or a "plating"). This solution contains particles of the desired plating metal (called "metal salts"), which is positively charged and has aissotl-ed into a mixture of acids and water Sometimes other chemical adgents like a "brightener" are added to the solution (if a shiny finish is desired).
The positively charged metal particles (invisibie to the eye). are attracted to any negatively charged object they can find. Luckily our negatively-charged watch chains and bracelets, the positive particles adhere in an even thin, smoolh layer to the chains' surfaces, due to the imbalance of electrons that has purposeiy occurred. This process can take anlt'here from a few minutes to several hours, depending on the desired thickness of the plating, though usually the process is pretty brief'
Most items ofjewelry require only a very thin layer to achieve their desired look. Then the parts are rinsed with plain water to remove any chemical residue. Sometimes they go on to be immersed in rust-resistant solutions or lacquers, but are always cleansed thoroughly of chemical residue in the end.
Another way that parts are plated is with barrel plating. Barrgl plating is generally a more efficient way to plate alarge amount of items. It is the prefened method for pieces too small to attach to racks (like small findings for example). Barrel plating utilizes all the same electrochemical processes as rack plating, but the items to be platei *. io.t"ud placed in a plastic, cylindrical container. This container has small holes drilled through the sides, as welf as a'odangler," a piece of of metal which is flexible and conductive.
The barrel begins to rotate once it is submerged in the positively charged plating bath (prepared in the same way as it is for rack plating), and the dangler is given a negative electrical current from a rectifier. When it comes into contact with the work inside the barrel, it transfers its negative charge. The current is transmitted from piece to piece as they tumble around together in the barrel' and the positively charged metal particles in theiolution find their way through the holes in the barrel.
The work is plated evenly as the barrel rotates in the solution. As an item is plated, rack OR barrel style, it is important to note that the metal is actually physically removed from the solution during ihe plating process. Even if the liquid in a tank still looks clear after plating, its chemical composition is totally different. The amount of metal salts a plater puts in at the beginning is directly proportional to amount of voltage that must be used to make this process happen correctly.
Gold Plating: A Unique Luster
Gold plating in particular has its own sort of sort of methodology to it, especially when it comes to costume jewelrv. Wittr piefes to be plated gold, it is common for the pieces to first be plated with a flash, coat of copper (a very thin layer of copper plating). This layer acts as a primer for the piece, providing a perfectiy ,both base foi the gold to luter adhere to. This copper layer is then followed with another coat of a metal such as nickel or tin or brass, which will have a brightening effect on the finished piece, as well as provide a barrier before the gold is applied. If gold is placed directly atop the copper, it piece wouid appear too red in hue which mighttake away from the aesthetic appeal of the piece.
with the development of the electronics industry in the 1940's and 1950's, platers were faced a new sort of client for their gold-plating: electronics manufacturers. These companies were EXTREMELY interested in gold plating. TVs, modem cameras, and microwaves were still beng developed, and their man rfacturers hal a problem--copper corrosion. Copper is one of the most, parts of wiring in these new technologies, but it was prone to rusting and corrosion over time. For the sensitive pieces inside their machinery-- record players, radios, and televisions, gold was the go to metal. But if these copper pieces were plated in corrosion-proof gold, they would last much longer, yet still retain the conductive properties copper! The electronics industry development of over 200 more gold and gold-alloy baths, many of which are still decorative options.
boom led to the used today as Common Plating Mishaps If a piece is improperly plated "the piece will take on the chemical properties of its base metal." If the objects base is steel, the object will corrode. If it is brass-based, the item can oxidize over time and green in certain parts. If this happens to an important piece ofjewelry, sometimes it will go through the process of being re-plated. This can happen if.'ir-hen plated for the first time, the current is intemrpted before the plating process is complete, the piece u.ill not be coated properly and requires a second go-round. Our plating tour guide/guru explained that, in his experience, improper plating has been the case with imported items from overseas. The pieces are, as a rule, rinsed thoroughly betn'een all these phases to remove any residues.
How Long Does Plating Last?
Costume jewelry is plated in valuable metals, not made of solid metal, because it is meant to be affordable and to be worn only on occasion-the more often it is wom, the faster the plating will wear off. Gold plating DOES wear when exposed to the environment (water, air, and the chemicals and oils from our skin), but it does not tarnish. Brass, however, wears and tarnishes, which is why you get that green tinge to the metal in brass items. Additionally, even if an item is plated gold, if it is not properly plated, it can tamish. because there can be flaws in the plating which air and moisture can reach.
Variations in Finish
Each tank at a factory contains a different metal and a different finish of that metal, which provides a veritable metallic rainbow of options for decorative plating; the variations in color and surface shine are almost endless. For a shiny finish, brighteners are added to the plating bath in the tanks, while there are also solutions designed to produce medium-shiny finishes, or even matte. The same is true for silver and copper, rhodium, and the other plating metals. For an antiqued finish,
besides a unique plating solution, items are also turmbled gently around with small stones before plating.
Shiny Vs. Antiqued Finishes
My personal favorite finish is the rox finish, as opposed to a shiny finish. To achieve this worn-looking rox plating, the objects to be plated must acquirc amatte finish. For example, a Copper Rox finish is achieved by getting a heavy copper plating, after which they are "relieved" with stones- basically, gently rolled around with rocks to achieve a look of age and wear on the piece. Shiner finishes are prone to scratches (shiny finishes can highlight any pre-existing flaws in the piece.) That's why antiqued finishes are cool. One can imagine the piece has a story but it is all an arnazing artful illusion, not uncommon to the idea behind distressed jeans. This process can be used with most metals that arc capable of achieving this matte finish- old rox, silver rox, and even to get that look of old pewer.
The final step for all plated is the finishing touch of being polished by dried, crushed corn cob. This is the reason why some plated pieces ofjewelry like a locket, might contain small light particle inside- they are acciientallyieft over and it's just an easily removable dusting of leftover corncobs from this step.- (It has been rumored that this dusting was fron mice or-other debris, but this is-not true).
Small items rotate in barrels with the cob, while chains and other itmes susceptible to tangling are "swished" around in the corn cob barrel to avoid the hassle of tangles.